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Writing contests can launch careers

Creative writing contests and competitions can jump-start a writer’s career. While cash prizes are usually small, winning and even short-listed entries are frequently published in a magazine or an anthology, thereby launching a newbie writer into print. Two of my stories – “Putting Mother in Her Place” in Room of One’s Own, and “Crazy” in Kaleidoscope Books’ anthology, Mother Margaret and the Rhinoceros Café, – got into print as a result of being shortlisted in writing contests.

Some larger contests, such as the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers First Crime Novel Competition for unpublished traditional mystery novels, have even bigger stakes. Writers of any nationality who have never had a novel published can enter the annual contest, and St. Martin’s Minotaur will publish the winning manuscript. (

The Debut Dagger, Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious award for unpublished crime fiction novels, launched the writing career of Alan Bradley when he took top place in 2007 for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. By the time Bradley had returned to Canada from the awards banquet in London, his agent had sold rights to the unfinished book in Canada, Britain and the U.S. It subsequently sold in 32 countries.

There’s a lot of buzz around the annual Debut Dagger competition, which some years attracts more than 1,000 English-language entries from all parts of the world. Winning the Dagger doesn’t guarantee publication, but contest organizers send out the shortlisted titles to any agents and editors who want a look at them. This has resulted in many shortlisted writers getting publication contracts.

After sending Still Life to publishers and literary agents for two years without success, Louise Penny found herself on the Debut Dagger shortlist in 2004, attracting the attention of London agent Teresa Chris. Within weeks, the book had sold internationally, and it scooped up a host of awards upon its publication in 2006. Penny has put out a new novel in the Three Pines series every year since then.

But don’t overlook smaller writing competitions. Just winning judges’ attention can be the fuel a writer needs to spur him or her on. Shortlisting in Crime Writers of Canada’s inaugural Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel in 2007 did that for me. I realized there were people out there who actually liked my work!

Be careful, though, about what contests you enter. Be wary of those that promise instant publication and big awards, and those that ask for large entry fees. Fees should cover the cost of sending material out to judges and small honorariums. One good source of many, although not all, Canadian contests, is The Canadian Writers’ Contest Calendar is a good source of many, although not all, Canadian writing contests. It’s a magazine of almost 80 pages of contest listings, not a wall calendar. Find out more about it at

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